Boston and Beyond: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Max Elbaum

18 April 2013

To my dear comrades and friends,

Though using the gender-biased terminology of 1624, John Donne’s Meditation 17 seems to me as if it could have been written in the first hour after Monday’s carnage in Boston:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

For those of us who have crossed the Boston Marathon finish line, those last few blocks on Boylston Street are unforgettable, emotionally as well as physically. To see the pictures and videos of maimed instead of merely exhausted bodies there is an especially searing experience. Saying that the bombing instantaneously turned a moment of large-scale human triumph into horror has already become a cliché. But it is true nonetheless. Reading about the lives of the dead and wounded is heartbreaking. Seeing the heroism of so many people who immediately ran toward instead of away from the explosions – including Boston Athletic Association volunteers and peace activists – is an inspiring reminder of human beings’ capacity to put the needs of others before their own.

But also a reminder that almost all of the killed and wounded were present on Boylston Street for that very reason: to support a loved one who would need all the encouragement she or he could get over those last body-punishing yards. That’s the spirit of “the people who watch marathons” – and after Monday I will never look at another person who turns out to cheer us runners in the same way.

All the above provides more than enough grief for this week. Or for that matter this year. Millions of people around the world share that grief and are expressing it in all the diverse ways people show their concern for others they’ve never met. But alas, we live in a world where not everyone (and certainly not those who wield disproportionate power in a horribly unequal world) responds based on universal human solidarity. Rather there is an outpouring of “us vs. them” thinking and action, which is present in way too big supply in the dominant politics and culture of our own country. Glenn Greenwald has already detected this pattern and writes about it in a thoughtful piece in the UK Guardian that begins this way:

“The widespread compassion for yesterday’s victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the U.S. perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the U.S. has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid. My Guardian colleague Gary Younge put this best on Twitter this morning:

“‘I’m up for us “All Being Bostonians Today.” But then can we all be Yemenis tomorrow & Pakistanis the day after that? That’s how empathy works.'”

Juan Cole addresses the same issue in a blog post yesterday titled “ Can the Boston Bombings Increase Our Sympathy for Iraq and Syria, for All Such Victims?”  But concerned that the usual suspects are seizing the moment to push the country in the totally opposite direction, Cole followed up today with another post on why Islamic Law forbids terrorism. A U.S. invasion of another predominantly Muslim country does not seem in the cards. But intensification of Islamophobia; an uptick in arguments justifying drone killings; further intensified surveillance, harassment and scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.; and arguments that the Boston bombing means Congress should scuttle immigration reform – all these are already out there in the political mix.

War Timers have been around this block before. This project in fact originated in response to an earlier moment when the powers-that-be responded to a horrible crime against humanity not by calling on universal human solidarity and justice via U.S. and international law, but by “with-us-or- with-the-terrorists” war, aggression and hatred. It’s time to brace ourselves and get ready to do our part as people of conscience across the country and the world rise up to demand that this country take a different course this time around.

‘There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner

Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own

Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner

For there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.’

     -Curtis Mayfield, People Get Ready

Finally, please take special care of yourselves each and every day. Terrible events like those in Boston Monday are among other things a jolt to make us appreciate even more than usual how much we value, need and care for one another.

May peace be with you.

Max  Posted on Organizing Upgrade and several other sites